Satellite Data’s Role in the Fight Against Climate Change

Satellites provide an invaluable, bird's-eye view of planet Earth. But how — and how quickly — will the data materialize into meaningful actions?

Carbon Mapper’s footage of bright red methane plumes scattered across a grayish-violet backdrop look like angry canker sores from a distance.

But the aerial footage, taken from 10,000 feet above ground, offers exactly the kind of visual evidence that Riley Duren, CEO of Carbon Mapper, hopes that U.S. policymakers will pay attention to when considering the role satellite communications can play in mitigating climate change. The non-profit organization, formed as a public-private partnership between the state of California, satellite provider Planet, and NASA, uses satellite technology to track methane leaks and Co2 point-source emissions.

“Oil and gas companies that have reviewed our data indicate that at least half of the methane super emitters that were detected are the result of leaks and malfunctions that were previously unknown,” he told policymakers during a May 18 virtual congressional hearing on climate change, hosted by the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Science, Space, and Technology. “The idea here is that a high-fidelity low constellation of satellites could offer daily facility scale methane monitoring over key regions globally to alert operators and regulators of leaks for more timely and cost-effective repairs.”

Data such as these, he added, could help regulators and organizations capture the low-hanging fruit by highlighting emission leaks that ground operators might otherwise miss — and not a moment too soon.

“We don’t have time as a species for false starts or monolithic approaches,” Duren told policymakers who attended the hearing.

Duren’s cries for change echo across the satellite industry — from university labs to the virtual boardroom meetings of Fortune 500 organizations. All signs indicate that the 2020s could mark a real turning point when the satellite industry, government, academia, investors, and corporate behemoths must come together to collaborate on real-world, climate change solutions.

In the months since President Joe Biden was inaugurated, climate change has re-emerged as a national priority, between the U.S. rejoining of the Paris Agreement and the White House’s goal of cutting greenhouse gas emissions by at least 50 percent by 2030. Biden’s budget request to Congress includes a proposal to increase the budget for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to a record-setting $6.9 billion for the fiscal year 2022.

The commercial satellite industry is uniquely positioned to help facilitate these goals through Earth Observation (EO) satellites, data technologies such as remote sensors, and real-time analysis that can tell, for example, which energy providers emit the most Co2 or how quickly Arctic ice is melting in Greenland.

But executing these goals — and minimizing, or slowing, the effects of climate change — goes beyond launching EO satellites into Low-Earth-Orbit (LEO) and collecting images that tell a story. Stakeholders must address multiple financial, communications, policy, and technology barriers to make a meaningful global impact.

Climate-Minded Missions

In the United States, satellite manufacturers like Maxar Technologies, Spire, and Planet are demonstrating that commercial remote sensing satellites, coupled with services from ground equipment providers, play a uniquely important role in shaping the climate, monitoring planetary events, and catalyzing change.

“It’s absolutely a sizable market,” says Madison Musgrave, sustainable development goal specialist at Maxar.

Maxar’s constellation of LEO satellites capture high-resolution, electro-optical imagery by zeroing in on objects as small as 30 centimeters, which allows humans and Artificial Intelligence (AI) to distinguish more nuanced differences between features on the ground.

Having this data helps for-profit, non-profit, and government organizations obtain the insights they need for planning and damage-mitigation initiatives. Maxar’s climate-change missions are wide-ranging, spanning a footprint that runs from Amazon rainforests to Australia’s coral reefs, providing granular insight into everything from habitat shifts to ocean pollution.

For example, a five-year coral reef mapping mission by the Khaled Bin Sultan Living Oceans Foundation leveraged 1 million square kilometers of Maxar satellite imagery covering islands and reefs in combination with data collected at the reefs. On a clear day, scientists can see as deep as 30 meters under the surface of clear blue and green ocean water in the satellite imagery to create new coral reef maps and begin the process of tracking changes over time in the size and structure of coral reefs, mangrove forests, seagrass beds, and other tropical seafloor habitats.

Great Barrier Reef, Australia. Satellite image ©2021 Maxar Technologies

“As the climate continues to change, we believe demand for these applications will increase,” says Musgrave. “Our 20-year historical archive provides evidence of changing climates and provides compelling evidence of change over time.”

Planet, which provides EO applications with 200 satellites in orbit, is also hoping to increase the world’s knowledge of climate change and improve transparency and real-time decision making.

Planet’s recent September 2020 partnership with Norway’s Ministry of Climate and Environment, with Kongsberg Satellite Services (KSAT) and Airbus, for example, was initiated for the purpose of bringing universal access to high-resolution satellite monitoring of the tropics to support efforts to stop deforestation and save the world’s tropical forests. As part of the ongoing partnership, Planet provides high-resolution monthly basemaps of the full tropics, covering over 64 developing countries — and makes it freely available for anyone to view and use through Norway’s technology partners.

“Climate change has ceased to be a future-tense problem — it’s effects are increasingly being felt today, and we’re experiencing the fierce urgency of now as never before,” says Andrew Zolli, Planet’s vice president of Sustainability and Global Development. “We need transparency and accountability to drive reductions in emissions, and global satellite monitoring will play a key role in monitoring, reporting, and verifying those reductions.”

Organizations like Descartes Labs, meanwhile, are helping to put satellite images to work, by mining data from sources like NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) to deliver business intelligence to multiple verticals, such as agriculture.

Specifically, global climate models combined with geospatial data can be used to estimate the longer-term effects of climate change on specific regions.

Applications such as soil carbon monitoring — an estimation of carbon stored in soil — can help demonstrate the impact of regenerative agriculture approaches, such as cover cropping, tillage reduction, or shifts in crop rotation.

Alex Diamond, Descartes Labs head of Marketing, said satellite data can reveal who is employing best practices. The agriculture industry is looking for solutions to make a “living, breathing” map of cover crop activity that offers field residue, and where farmers are rotating crops.

The motives for these applications aren’t strictly altruistic; they’re also good business. Diamond cites a recent article on carbon markets for estimates for how much farmers can make (e.g., Indigo and Nori are currently offering $10-$15 per metric ton, but those prices may change depending on market demand).

But there are still a lot of unknowns, since developing climate models is an evolving science.

“There are always challenges and they vary from processing data efficiently, knowing what data sets to acquire, which ones to fuse with others, and business-related issues like delivering ROI for clients as projects grow beyond the pilot stage,” says Diamond. “Being able to reliably detect regenerative agriculture practices is really challenging. We need to verify that what we’re seeing in satellite imagery is what’s happening on the ground.”

Executing the Vision

During the May 18 hearing, NASA’s Dr. Karen M. St. Germain, division director for the agency’s Earth Science Division, Science Mission Directorate, and Gavin Schmidt, NASA’s newly appointed senior climate advisor, touched on dozens of ways the agency is supporting greener missions, including the upcoming Landsat missions, and working with NOAA and commercial operators to improve their understanding of climate change.

But for some of the newer and more promising satellite-powered Earth Observation missions to get off the ground and catalyze change, stakeholders will have to address multiple technical and institutional barriers.

Case in point: Carbon Mapper’s initial pilot involved the use of a dedicated NASA aircraft to survey methane emissions across the state of California. Scaling that operation, by launching small, mobile satellites into LEO with the right equipment to monitor a larger land mass, is a costlier endeavor, even with the availability of satellites from Planet, and dedicated university research scientists.

“No organization today has the mandate, resources, or even the culture to field this kind of decision support system affordably at scale,” Duren told policymakers at the May 18 hearing.

Specifically, he noted, remote sensing technology needed for many missions is currently unavailable outside of NASA, which itself lacks the capacity to launch large constellations of satellites. Next, sustaining satellite systems is another challenge, given shifting federal priorities. Also, many policy decisions are driven by reports created several years prior — which means today’s solutions aren’t based on real-time data and needs.

“The main mechanism used today to track greenhouse gas emissions is an inventory,” Duren tells Via Satellite. “But the inventories have a two-year latency, not real time.”

What Duren hopes for is a satellite-driven solution for climate monitoring that runs as efficiently as weather-tracking systems, which is “omnipresent, where you need it and when you need it.”

Schmidt, who is currently leveraging scientific expertise to refine applications of NASA’s climate data, says that he foresees more opportunities for greater collaboration between public and private sectors — which is promising, since time is of the essence. A 2015 report from the World Bank predicted that a higher frequency of climate events such as droughts, flooding, and hurricanes will push an additional 100 million people into extreme poverty by 2030.

“What we have, with NASA and commercial providers, is potentially complementary systems where we’re not measuring the same things but related things,” Schmidt says. “It’s like the parable of the elephant with six blind philosophers. … We’re all trying to see the same climate, but the different perspectives that we have give us different information. Only when you put these things together … can you see the whole picture.”

Focused on the Future

What is encouraging to Planet’s Zolli and others is the shift in tone by some of the world’s leading investors, who are holding entrepreneurs accountable for their business practices.

Satellite communications providers and their partners whose technologies can support sustainable-business goals as they evolve could become more attractive partners over the next few years.

Zolli referenced BlackRock CEO Larry Fink’s January 2021, letter to businesses, which laid out plans to combat climate change and called for organizations to meet sustainable business goals, including the elimination of greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. Throughout the letter, Fink emphasized that investors will treat climate risk as an investment risk.

“But how do you measure that risk?” says Zolli. “The best way is with sophisticated modeling tools powered by real-time insights derived from satellites and ground-based sensors. To meet the ambitious 50 percent reduction target laid out by the administration, we’re going to need to transform countless systems, from energy and transportation to agriculture and land-use — and we’re going to have to measure our progress as we go. Behind the scenes in the U.S., there are intensive discussions going on between the industry and the executive branch, so policymakers can understand what these remote sensing technologies can contribute and what role they should play.”

Zolli said he and his colleagues at Planet looking forward to the COP26 climate talks in Glasgow, Scotland, this fall, which will bring together representatives from nearly 200 nations, to coordinate and accelerate action on climate change. The gathering may potentially coincide with another gathering, among stakeholders of an international collaborative initiative called Climate TRACE (Tracking Real-time Atmospheric Carbon Emissions), which was postponed in 2020 due to the pandemic.

The new partnership brings together a combination of satellite image processing, machine learning, big data, and sensor technologies located throughout the world.

“Climate TRACE analyzes satellite imagery of coal-fired plants to see when they’re active, and to assess how much carbon is going into the atmosphere,” says Zolli. “That kind of independent, rigorous emissions data is a powerful tool to help national governments meet their climate plans, and to hold emitters to account.” VS

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